The status of fostering must be raised to give foster carers the recognition they deserve, MPs have heard.
The increasingly complex needs of children in care mean fosterers face a tough task, carers and groups told the Commons education select committee.
Foster care families often felt unsupported and under-rated in the service they offered to some of society's most vulnerable children.
The committee was taking evidence at its first hearing on fostering.
Harriet Ward, professor of child and family research at Loughborough University, told MPs: "It's become much more evident that a very high proportion of children in the care system have experienced abuse and neglect and they have very complex needs, very often, as a result of that."
Foster carers had an "incredibly complex task" in supporting these children, she said.
"It's more difficult, I suspect, it's more complex than it was 10 years ago because of the population of children coming into the care system now.
"I think the status issue really needs to be acknowledged and addressed."
The MPs heard that the Fostering Network estimates there is a shortage of some 7,600 foster care families in the UK.
Asked if a recruitment drive would address gaps in fostering provision, Kevin Williams, chief executive of the network, said: "The foster care system is currently under unsustainable strain and just to recruit more foster carers is not the answer.
"We need to have fundamental, root-and-branch reform of the foster carer system that will then support new foster carers."
Jackie Edwards, professional adviser with FosterTalk, said there was a shortage of carers for specific groups of children, notably sibling groups, older children, unaccompanied asylum seeker children and children with disabilities.
Ms Edwards said putting children with foster carers who had the rights skills for their individual needs was critical.
"It's not about a bed - we don't put children in beds. We match them with a carer that can meet their needs."
The committee of MPs expects to hold three or four further hearings on fostering before producing a report in June.
A widespread survey by The Fostering Network found that foster carers felt pressured to take on cases outside of their approved range
A third of foster carers feel social workers “do not treat them as equal” in decisions around care, research has found.
The Fostering Network survey of 2,530 UK foster carers also found almost a third had been referred children from outside their approval range. Half of those who took children outside their range felt “pressured” into it, while three-quarters said they received no additional support to cope.
Less than half of the carers surveyed (42%) felt their allowance met the full cost of looking after fostered children, down from 80% when the survey was last carried out in 2014. Almost a third said they were “rarely or never” given all of the information about a child before taking on a placement, while 61% had seen a council end a placement before carrying out a review.
The Fostering Network said the findings showed the system was under “unsustainable strain” that threatened to undo progress made to improve foster care in recent years.
Bottom of decision making
Kevin Williams, the charity’s chief executive, told Community Care foster carers “often feel they are at the bottom of the decision making around children”.
Williams shared an example where a child protection conference chair stopped a foster carer from attending because he was not considered a professional, only for the carer to reveal he was a former assistant director in children’s services.
“I think there are real examples of ways that foster carers are not treated as professionals,” said Williams.
“The issue about sharing information – 34% of foster carers reported they were either rarely or never given all of the information about a foster child prior to placement – that, in a way, talks to the heart of the way foster carers are not treated as professionals.”
One carer who responded to the survey said: “Many social workers, particularly the child’s team, often afford us no respect whatsoever… it’s something that needs improving.”
Another added: “It is rare that a child’s social worker will recognise that the foster carer knows the child better than they do, therefore they don’t take our opinions and advice into consideration, almost always at negative cost to the child.”
The report recommends the Westminster government and devolved administrations boost the status of foster carers by improving training and creating national registers of carers. It also calls for ministers to revisit minimum levels of fostering allowances.
Responding the report, a department for education spokesperson said: “Foster carers make an essential contribution to children’s lives and we want to ensure they receive the support they need. That is why we are currently undertaking a national stocktake of fostering to better understand current provision – including looking at issues affecting foster carers, such as fees, allowances and support. Alongside this we have supported the testing of new and innovative models of foster care as part of the £200 million Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme, including better ways to support children in foster care and their carers.”
The UK’s fostering system cannot be held together by the goodwill and persistence of foster carers indefinitely. Real change is needed now
As chief executive of the Fostering Network, I am fortunate to meet foster carers from all over the country.
Most of them have two things in common. First, their commitment and dedication to the children they look after, and seeing the aspirations and achievements of those children lifted as high as possible. Second, their concern and disappointment with the fostering system.
We know that foster care works, and that foster carers, as well as many social workers and others in the system, do an amazing job to help children transform their lives.
However, we are concerned that the fostering system is being placed increasingly under strain. This risks undermining the hard-won progress in the aspirations and achievements of fostered young people. We cannot allow that to happen. The UK’s fostering system cannot be held together by the goodwill and persistence of foster carers indefinitely. We need a complete review that will tackle some of the major issues the fostering system faces.here to edit.
This year is crucial for fostering and there are clear opportunities for recommendations for change to be made and implemented. The UK government is undertaking a fostering stocktake, while the Scottish government carries out a “root and branch review”. Fostering has the spotlight, perhaps for the first time in a generation. We must not allow this opportunity to pass without action.
On Wednesday, I will give evidence to the education committee’s inquiry into fostering, which has been informed by the Fostering Network’s new State of the Nation’s Foster Care report. Based on our survey of more than 2,500 foster carers, it is the largest report of its kind.
The report highlights that:
Stability – of home, education and relationships – is a huge influence on the outcomes of fostered children’s lives. And a satisfied, well-supported foster carer workforce is an essential element of this stability. Our report identifies a number of areas – such as insufficient foster carers’ finances, not being treated as part of a team, and a lack of training and support – that need to be tackled immediately. It also shows clearly the need for everyone in the fostering world to recognise and value foster carers as the key professional in the team around the child. It also reveals the need for the terms and conditions of foster carers to be enhanced, formalised and protected.
The impact of these issues not being addressed over many years is that, despite being deeply committed to the children in their care, too many foster carers are not willing to recommend fostering to others. This affects the recruitment of new foster carers, and increases long-term societal and financial costs through a deterioration in the provision of foster care.
It is important that the education committee, the UK’s stocktake, and Scotland’s review considers these issues and addresses them urgently.
The Fostering Network and its members have driven the majority of recent improvements through campaigning, advice and practice innovation work. But there is still a long way to go and we are concerned that the advances that have been made are at risk.
Our fear is that, with austerity biting, the cracks in the fostering system are only going to widen. For the sake of the stability and the outcomes of thousands of looked-after children, this cannot be allowed to happen.
Over the past 40 years, it has become widely recognised that good foster care transforms the lives of children and that a family setting is the best option for the majority of children in care. Fostering has benefited from an enthusiastic, committed and expert workforce of foster carers. We believe that the State of the Nation report acts as a warning to the government that this dedication should no longer be taken for granted. Real change is needed, and it is needed now.
The Runaways Service is off to a flying start since opening a new provision in the London Borough of Lewisham to support young people who run away from home, education and care.
Every year around 100,000 under 16s run away from home or care in the UK. Children who run away are more likely to be exposed to a wide range of dangers, from gang violence, offending and substance abuse to grooming, sexual exploitation and trafficking. St Christopher's Runaways Service aims to reduce the number of first time and repeat incidents of young people running away.
Since the service launched towards the end of 2016, staff have meeting representatives from Lewisham Children's Services to raise awareness of what they do. Thanks to this hard work and dedication they are now part of a multi-agency missing, exploitation and trafficking operational group, which meets every week to look at children's cases.
Although the team are based in the Lewisham Children's Services building they spend most of their time visiting children in their home or care placement to conduct Independent Return Home Interviews, follow-up one-to-one sessions or family mediation.
The team currently have a caseload of six children and young people whilst the new referral system is embedded by Lewisham's social workers, but this figure is likely to rise quickly.
A first monitoring report will be submitted by the end of February to reflect on the team's progress.
The shortage of foster carers in Northern Ireland is reaching crisis point, according to a leading children’s charity.
Action for Children Northern Ireland has revealed that 170 carers are urgently needed in the region to meet the immediate need for placement.
Some children are having to be moved up to 70 miles from their home because there are no carers in their own areas, the charity said.
Avery Bowser, children’s services manager at Action for Children Northern Ireland, said: “We have children who desperately need a secure and loving home in Northern Ireland. We simply don’t have enough carers.
“Because of the shortage of foster carers across Northern Ireland this often results in children being placed a long way from home.
“Action for Children is appealing for really special people to come forward who have resilience, patience and flexibility to meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable children.”
" Currently the situation is nearing crisis point. We are constantly being approached to provide placements for children in the most desperate need and we simply don’t have enough people in the right place at the right time to help."
– AVERY BOWSER, ACTION FOR CHILDREN NORTHERN IRELAND
Mr Bowser explained that children in need of foster care that can’t be placed nearer to their home have difficulty maintaining links with their family and community.
“This affects the chances of the children returning home and has a negative impact on the long-term outcome for the child,” he said.
Action for Children Northern Ireland has been working closely with Health and Social Care Trusts to help them meet the urgent need for placements in their localities.
“The need is widespread across Northern Ireland,” Mr Bowser added.
“For instance in Belfast we need another 32 foster families while in Derry another nine are needed.
“In the Northern Trust area where we are particularly keen to attract carers - we need another 44 from Carrickfergus to Coleraine to Cookstown and all points in between. In the Southern Trust, another priority area for us, there is a need for another 34 carers this year.”
Another week, another local authority prepares to cut allowances for foster carers. Now Bradford has signalled that its foster carers should expect to receive less money for caring for some of society’s most vulnerable children and young people.
By doing so Bradford is following not-so-boldly in the footsteps of Bromley and Solihull, to name just two local authorities. In fact, a survey by the Fostering Network last year revealed that around 70% of foster carers had suffered cuts to their allowances, imposed by their council.
Small wonder, then, that there is an acute shortage of foster carers, and that there are calls for a union of foster carers to protect terms and conditions. The Fostering Network estimates that 8,000 new fostering families are needed to meet demand. The number of children and young people being taken into care is at a record high, and there is no sense that the pressure is going to ease any time soon. In particular, foster care is failing to attract younger families so the current cohort is getting older, and retirement looms for many.
Increasingly, foster carers are looking at alternatives to their local authorities, and the packages offered by private fostering providers look increasingly attractive. Councils can ill-afford to lose foster carers to agencies, when it is likely they will incur additional costs to secure placements. Yet, as councils struggle to balance their budgets, foster carers look like an easy target. Even if basic allowances are held, many additional allowances are being removed altogether to save money.
I think that it is particularly difficult for foster carers to express their frustration over allowances because there is still a widely-held belief among the public that fostering and money should never be mentioned in the same breath. That we do it for the love of the children, and that is a reward in itself; and that foster carers should not be motivated by money.
I usually shy away from writing about the finances of foster carer, not least because I am acutely aware that whatever we receive to cover our fostering costs, it is always more than birth families had to spend on their children before they were taken into care. Who am I to complain about allowances that must seem like a small fortune to so many? And councils are not singling out foster carers for cuts. Nobody has been spared. Our hardship is nothing, when measured against somebody trying to care for an elderly mum or dad at home.
You can judge for yourself whether foster allowances are fair by clicking here. We currently receive around £700 a week to foster three children. The finances of fostering are fiendishly complicated. Affordability is significantly influenced by your own circumstances, and those of the children you care for.
Some children arrive with nothing, and receive nothing from their families while they are in placement. Some foster carers have other jobs (I work, but my wife is a full-time carer) but others are unable to. You will need a larger home, and a larger car. If you already own these, you are spared the additional cost. If you don’t, then it represents an expense. The wear and tear on the home is costly, particularly when you care for children with special physical and emotional needs. Fostering can be a messy business.
We try to give the children in our care the same opportunities our own children enjoyed. So, we go big on things like swimming lessons, farm parks, cycling, football coaching, trampolining and so on. Each placement becomes a crash course in life skills. Whatever their future holds, we hope that the children leave us better prepared than when they arrived.
Based on figures scribbled on the back of an envelope, I estimate that we have been out of pocket as a result of most (if not all) of our placements. This is before taking into account other factors, such as loss of earnings or vehicle depreciation. But I can’t expect that to sway the argument about whether foster carers represent value for taxpayers’ money.
Of course, our biggest contribution to fostering is our time, and taxpayers get that for free. We become parents to other people’s children, on duty 24/7. We wash, dress and feed them, wipe their bottoms and blow their noses. We teach them to tell the time, tie their shoelaces and understand the difference between right and wrong. We cheer them on from the touchline, fight their corner, hold them tight and brush away their tears when they become overwhelmed by the sheer unfairness of it all.
This is what makes it so difficult to discuss money. But we really, really do need to talk about it.
Sarah Anderson of the Foster Care Workers Union says those looking after the most vulnerable need better pay and job protection, even if it means changing the law
Working with no employment rights is one of the big downsides of the so-called gig economy. Now foster care workers are joining bike couriers and taxi drivers to fight for the recognition they deserve.
Sarah Anderson fosters teenagers and is so angry she is the new face of the Foster Care Workers Union. Its aim: to secure employment rights for the 55,000 foster families in the UK.
Anderson says the current system is essentially broken and does not help those who need it most – the children – because it is archaic. Foster carers are technically self-employed, but they can work for only one local authority or independent foster agency at a time in England, and will often only earn while they have a child placed with them.
“We’re the epitome of the gig economy,” says Anderson. “But the care we give these children on behalf of their corporate parent – the government – is important. We need and deserve workers’ rights and professional respect.”
Anderson loves her job, but she says most foster care workers are underpaid and undervalued, and desperately need the help of the FCWU, which launched as a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), in September 2016. “There are many thousands of us who are, frankly, being taken advantage of through low pay, slashed allowances, no job protection and the fear of false allegation,” she stresses.
Anderson is one of the 60 foster care workers who voted to unionise and is now the branch’s spokeswoman. “I fundamentally think this will drive up standards in foster care. If you treat people better whilst they’re doing a job – and this is a job – they’ll do it better.”
Social care cuts have gone “from the fat to the bone”, according to The Fostering Network. The charity reported in April 2016 that two-thirds of foster care workers in the UK felt falling budgets had harmed the children they look after, with 70% saying their own payments were cut. Just last week, Bradford became the latest council to vote to cut allowances for its foster carers
Foster carers receive an allowance per child, which varies according to age or if they have special needs – this is to be spent solely on the child’s share of food, utilities, school uniform, transport and other essentials. The basic weekly allowance for a primary school-aged child is £139, but this increases in London and the south-east to £163 and £156 respectively.
Some also receive a fee, The Fostering Network says half of all UK foster carers receive no fee at all and are increasingly subsidising cut allowances from their own pockets.
Agencies that supply foster carers to local authorities, at some cost, typically pay them much more and are capable of fronting up financial benefits – so-called golden hellos. It is a practice Anderson disapproves of because it puts councils – who cannot offer such incentives – at a disadvantage.
Although money is not the main reason families choose to foster, herself included, Anderson believes earnings should be significant for the most experienced who look after the most challenging children. “We do what nobody else wants to,” explains Anderson. “We’re looking after some of our most troubled, difficult children, 24 hours a day. It’s a job which can bring you to your knees, but it’s worth it when you see a child succeed, even in the smallest way.” Anderson can net up to £58,000 in fees and allowances a year looking after two “damaged and traumatised young people with serious mental health needs”. But broken down, the £550 in fees and allowances she gets per child per week equates to around £3.20 an hour. “I think that shows we’re no fat cats,” she observes. “People think we’re the baddies for taking money, but you wouldn’t ask a paediatric nurse or a teacher to work for nothing. We are no different – and the more highly skilled we are, the more we should be paid.
“This is my career. We do a valuable job for society, but because we have no employment status, we’re terribly insecure. We can be deregistered by a local authority or agency at any time, with no explanation. We absolutely need this union,” she says, adding that during a time of cuts, safeguarding workers is more important than ever. “Put it this way: if there are no foster carers, there’s no foster care.”
Anderson says having workers’ employment status would give foster carers more recognition from social services, the government and also the public. “I think many people have no idea what it’s like to do this job,” she says with a wry smile. “Not only are we in loco parentis, providing a stable, loving and boundaried home environment, we are highly skilled, highly trained workers. If you’ve trained and worked hard to be a professional, you need to be treated as one.” She also believes the perceived low status is putting potential foster carers off, something the system can little afford, given that around 9,000 more are needed in the UK in the next year.
Although the FCWU is in a fledgling stage, with just a few hundred members, momentum is high, according to the IWGB. Its most pressing task is to get legislation passed to get workers’ rights status. “We want job protection, fair pay – including pay protection – holiday entitlement and protection when we’re sick – just like any other workers,” says Anderson.
Although she says there is no shortage of volunteers among foster carers for a test case, such as the one recently won by IWGB on behalf of a courier for CitySprint, this isn’t being pursued yet. Instead, the union is setting up an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) to look at employment rights for foster care workers – in a bid to get legislative change.
“We need the APPG to lobby parliament to change legislation for foster carers, dragging the way we currently work into the 21st century,” she says.
Anderson also wants foster care workers protected from unfounded allegations. “I’ve got direct experience of the stress and upset of this, as well as the loss of livelihood whilst they’re investigated. It should not take upwards of four months to investigate an allegation – we want a shorter and more transparent process and appropriate union and legal representation for the foster care workers facing them. We also want compensation if they are proved unfounded.”
And because they do not have worker employment status, foster carers are not protected by current whistleblowing law either – this is something the union will address, too – although Anderson is cynical about whether this alone will be an incentive for carers to speak out. “Often, foster carers are working in a climate of fear,” she says.
The union also wants a central and independent register for foster care workers – for their own benefit as well as for that of the local authorities and agencies. “Currently, local authorities and [independent fostering agencies] have to assess foster care workers each time they move, which costs time and money and removes them from the carer pool. This will save time and money,” says Anderson. But would it be safe? “All foster care workers need to be thoroughly vetted and under any new system they would be.”
She also wants the union to give independent support and advice to foster care workers. “Most existing advice has been devised by social workers – any job in child social care is difficult, but they’re at a different coalface to us.”
Most of all, Anderson wants to see positive change affecting the outcomes of the children she looks after. “We love them, but someone has to stand up and say that looking after a child, keeping them safe and giving them a chance in life – whilst being paid and treated as a professional by society – are not mutually exclusive.”
FtSE Member News: Community Foster Care appoint Cally Williams as their new Placement Support Worker
Cally Williams has joined Community Foster Care as a Placement Support Worker at the agency’s office in Wootton Bassett.
Cally was part of the looked-after children education service in Swindon for nine years until 2015.
For the last year she has worked in a behavioural school in Swindon.
“I gravitate towards children who find life more challenging and enjoy building up positive relationships with them,” she said.
“I’m really pleased to become part of the Community Foster Care team. I’ve known some of the staff for quite a time and I like the way the organisation operates.”
The not-for-profit agency has been providing carers for children in Swindon and Wiltshire for more than 16 years from its Gloucestershire HQ.
Cally, who has a son and daughter and two grandchildren, is based at the office at the Lime Kiln Business Centre, just outside Swindon, which covers Swindon, Trowbridge, Devizes, Calne, Chippenham, Corsham, Devizes, Melksham, Marlborough, Lyneham and surrounding areas.
Elena Jose, Supervising Social Worker in Wootton Bassett, welcomed Cally to the team.
“She has a great way with children and we love having her with us,” she said.
CFC is actively looking for carers who can provide safe, nurturing homes for children for short, long-term and respite care.
Foster carers come from all walks of life and can be male or female, single, married or divorced. They must be over 25 and in generally good health.
Anyone who is interested in becoming a foster carer can call the Wootton Bassett team on 01793 858232.
This year will bring some exciting and, potentially, controversial developments and innovations to children’s social work and social care.
Children and Social Work Bill
When the Children and Social Work Bill concludes there will be some provision for local authorities to test out new ways of working that don’t fit neatly into existing legislation. There are some perfectly reasonable fears round this. However, we need to look carefully at any innovations and proposals that could improve the experience of children and families in the child protection system, and the outcomes for children who enter the care system. It is unacceptable for professional discomfort to get in the way of improving the chances for vulnerable children.
The innovation fund will begin to announce the recipients of its new round of funding. It is particularly welcome that children in care and care leavers will be prioritised in this round. These are the children who we as a profession are responsible for. We must make the right decisions for them more often. We must provide permanence and stability sooner and ensure they have every chance to achieve their potential and go on to live successful and happy adult lives.
The accreditation scheme for children’s social workers will come into effect, and a long overdue focus on a proper framework of continual professional development for them will be enacted. The characteristics of a vibrant and effective profession are that it continues to change, learn and grow, and responds to new evidence and approaches for creating better outcomes for children and families.
The healthy debate about whether too many children are removed from their families will continue. New services such as Pause, and the family group conference approach in Leeds, and the continuing rise in special guardianship orders to extended family members will all feature.
I hope to see a renewed focus on the support offered to birth parents when children are returned to them after a short period in care or a child protection investigation. This is a very weak area of practice and we as a profession need to do much better in supporting birth parents when children are returned to them to make sure that these placements are stable and secure and are able to meet the needs of the children fully and sustainably. It is vital that families are offered ongoing support and that their cases are not closed and then reopened as child protection or child in need cases if the birth parents put their hands up to request assistance. We would not do this for foster carers or adopters, so why must we do it with birth parents?
What Works Centre
We will see the launch of the What Works Centre, which will be very welcome. One of the great failings of children’s social care provision over the years has been the difficulty in rolling out successful work from one local authority to others. It would be good to see the What Works Centre begin to establish common models of service across both child protection and children in care social work. It is neither acceptable nor sustainable for us to continue to have such variations in systems and approaches; we must settle on a small number of evidence-based systems and make sure they are rolled out across the UK.
Finally, 2017 will see the first local authority fully contract out permanence services to a charity. TACT is very much looking forward to working in partnership with Peterborough City Council to demonstrate how this can make a profound and lasting difference to all children in residential care and in foster, adoptive and special guardianship/kinship families
Andy Elvin – TACT CE
Daniel Jones, 31, joins the independent foster care agency after 13 years working with young people.
The new role will encompass Community Foster Care’s work in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Cumbria and Lancashire, as well as the development of its sister agency, Community Family Care, based in Staunton.
Brought up in Tuffley, Dan left St Peter’s School in Gloucester to take a gap year teaching outdoor education – and stayed for six years.
“I had great fun with kids doing mountain biking, archery, rock climbing and survival skills for the Birmingham Diocese. At the same time, I did a degree in Youth and Community Work at the University of Derby,” said Dan, who now lives in Sandhurst.
For the last two years Dan was the Deputy CEO of Open House in Stroud which offers support and accommodation to young homeless people and those with complex needs. For five years before that, he was a youth work manager for Young Gloucestershire.
His links with fostering were strengthened in 2010 when he joined the Community Foster Care Panel.
“I like the culture of CFC and the way it works with young people – it’s totally child-centred and that’s what sets it apart from other agencies. There is a lot of potential and opportunity to grow,” he said.
Chief Executive of Community Foster Care, Hugh Pelham, welcomed Dan.
“He has been a real asset on our Foster Care Panel and is just the person we need to help take the organisation forward. His experience and enthusiasm are first class.”
The agency, based in Staunton, is a registered charity and not-for-profit company operating in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. Established in 1999, it has nine staff based in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, five in Lancashire and Cumbria, and three in Community Family Care.
News & Jobs
News stories and job vacancies from our member agencies, the fostering sector and the world of child protection and safeguarding as a whole.
Browse News Archives